The Craft of Hand Drawing

Providing remote hand drawing lessons to a group of ten year olds has its challenges. It’s not easy conveying the speed and flow of an arm movement when you’re looking at a blurry and sometimes glitchy video feed.

This is a screenshot of a beginning of a remote drawing session. The warmup exercise was based on a movement pattern that could be practiced at different tempos. Permission was obtained from the parents of the students to publish this image.

Setting the Scene

I have seven kids in my remote drawing class. We’ve joined together in part to help alleviate some of the emotional stresses of the pandemic. The kids and their families live in an under-resourced community in the Bronx. With schools closed and some grown-ups having to look for new jobs, this class is a kind of sanctuary for all of us.

What better opportunity than this to slow down and reconnect with some basic handwork.

Handwork has a special value for me. Over the years I’ve worked as a cabinetmaker, carpenter, illustrator and painter. Transforming physical materials with the physical body provides a rich experience that can’t be replaced with more theoretical or conceptual pursuits.

The Unique Challenge

For me, attempts to learn handcraft skills from a book or online tutorial have always lacked the subtleties that can be seen, heard, smelled and touched when working alongside of a skilled craftsperson. However, current events have made in-person workshops all but impossible for densely populated communities. This brings up the question as to how to set up remote meetings so that they can provide as many of the sensory cues and kinetic experiences as would be gotten through a typical in-person exchange.

The Physics of Drawing

I almost always start each session of my drawing workshops with a warmup exercise. These exercises are meant to engage more of the body. They’re usually executed quickly and, with practice, fluidly. The only tool that’s needed is a pencil. The only material necessary is a piece of paper. This minimalist drawing kit is meant to encourage us all to bring our attention to our bodies. How do I hold the pencil? How quickly do I move my arm? With how much pressure does the tip of the pencil move across the paper? Can the speed and pressure of a movement vary even within a single stroke?

Unexpected Lines?

Seen from a different perspective the practice of hand drawing also provides valuable realizations into how the actual traces of our marks on the paper don’t always correspond to the visual results that we were aiming for. We see something unexpected. A part of us is upset by this discrepancy. A certain wave of negativity jumps in. We avoid opening ourselves up to these unexpected results. We see only a mistake, and for many of us that seems to close a certain emotional door.

In his book, Art as Experience, John Dewey likens the art process to a series of momentary experiences in selecting a stone that’s fit for some purpose for which it’s needed. He mentions how, if conditions permit, a person can allow themselves to truly “undergo” the weight and texture of the stone. This undergoing, in turn, provides a basis for some further decision as to whether the stone will correspond with the intended use. At it’s best the process and craft of drawing operates along similar principles.

Looking Ahead

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’d like to set up an environment where beginning and advanced students can share the nuances of the craft of hand drawing. My goal is to bring together a group of young people who share an interest in drawing, and are open to developing their craft over time.